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Policymakers should look at our history

Many of the presentations at the Wiser colloquium on the ANC's "second transition" policy documents drew on both the distant and the recent past and its scholarship in South Africa.

Moeletsi Mbeki, for example, answered questions about land reform by pointing to the rich historiography on the very difficult work of tenant farming in South Africa. Lumkile Mondi warned of the difficulties of a second industrialisation by reminding us of the tenacity, and brutality, of the key industrial planners before and during apartheid.

This interest in the lessons of our historical scholarship is well matched with the interests of young South African scholars. Examples of the melding of history and politics can be found in Stephen Sparks's recently completed doctoral dissertation on the history of Sasolburg, Nafisa Essop Sheik's thesis on the invisible common histories of customary law and Andrew Macdonald's research on the deep history of corruption and subversion in the distinctively coercive controlling institutions in South Africa. Vashna Jagarnath's recently completed doctorate on Gandhi's use of the tools of the colonial bureaucracy — especially meticulous archiving, against the expanding racial order of the early 20th-century empire — has some obvious implications for our present politics.

All of these students have completed histories with rich and complicated implications for the selection of policy priorities today, highlighting what is achievable and what is not in the ambitions of our current state, and the wider public.

In thinking about our history, it is important for South Africans to see that global arguments about strategies for national and regional prosperity have come full circle over the past decade.

The benefits of institutions
In the place of the late 20th-century emphases on the benefits of trade, markets and entrepreneurial innovation, the most influential arguments today stress the long-term benefits of institutions — of the law and courts, churches, schools, the press, welfare systems — as the basis of prosperity.

At Wits, quite unlike the position described in a recent ministerial report on the humanities, a potent mixture of young and old researchers engages local and transnational, materialist and intellectualist, nationalist and cosmopolitan intellectual traditions, producing world-class research across the disciplines.

An example of this is an event hosted by Wiser on July 7. It will see eminent South African and international social scientists and policymakers come together to float a formal network for history and policy (see for details of the gathering).

The network to be discussed is modelled on the British one (, which has produced hundreds of short argumentative analyses of issues such as school curriculums, unemployment, welfare benefits and industrial policy.

These reports, produced free of charge by scholars who have unique familiarity with their subjects, are distributed online and publicised during events linking scholars and policymakers. 

There are no simple lessons from our historiography, except perhaps those teaching the importance of paradox and the power of unintended consequences in real historical processes.

The land reform question
Take land reform. Many scholars have pointed to the importance of the abolition of large land-holdings in Asia as a key reason for the post-World War II investment in industry and the widespread levelling of wealth.

Yet in South Africa, against these well-established arguments, policymakers need to consider the history of the difficulties of farming, the enormous effort by the state to make capitalist agriculture viable and the brutality and intergenerational costs of small-scale cultivation. The key problems here may revolve more around the realities of state support than absentee land-holding.

Overall the study of history is likely to offer policy (and politics) a strong emphasis on the power of long-running processes and often invisible practices such as careful record-keeping and dogged bureaucracy.

A better-established link between the development of policy and the evidence and arguments of our massive, wonderful, but sometimes difficult historiography certainly won't produce any easy or quick answers.

It may reduce the risks of our neglecting what has worked in the past, or of our repeating mistakes that have been forgotten. It will remind our politicians and our people that the rewards of good government are usually only felt in the very long term. Most importantly it will strengthen the development and the roles of an informed citizenry.

Keith Breckenridge is a researcher and associate professor at Wiser

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